#1019: Back from the Grave (1940) by Walter S. Masterman

Back from the Grave

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In the London suburb of Balham, stark among the red-brick villas that stand like “lines of red cabbage in a field”, can be found the “ugly and squat” house Bloomfield, the one-time home of Mr. Peabody which contains within its high surrounding wall some three acres of land and presents a “forlorn appearance” to the world. Following the death of its elderly owner, who refused to sell out to the “rising tide of suburbia” and insisted the house and land be kept together, Bloomfield stands empty for many months until the mysterious Dr. Cox arrives on the scene and takes possession — refusing to answer any queries about himself or his work, much to the frustration of the local busybodies.

Part of the difficulty in finding anyone to take the house on was Peabody’s insistence that he be buried in a secret location within the house itself, so when rumours begin to circulate that Dr. Cox’s various tenants might in fact be the inmates of a lunatic asylum, the more upwardly mobile elements of the area are moved to investigate.

Mrs. Golding was getting interested. She had never really met a lunatic before, except an uncle of hers who had turned Socialist.

Shortly after Cox, his wife, and his ‘inmates’ take possession, an 18 year-old girl calling herself Billie appears on the doorstep of ex-Scotland Yard man Sir Arthur Sinclair, claiming to have escaped from Bloomfield and urging Sinclair to investigate the Cox menage as she is certain that something underhand is happening. Her story is interrupted by the appearance of Dr. and Mrs. Cox, who seek to calm any suspicions Sinclair may have had, and take Billie, who admits she is their legal ward, away. And yet Sinclair, who “can smell evil as a non-smoker can smell a cigar” isn’t appeased, and arranges for an ex-con, George Head, to be posted in Bloomfield as a butler and report back on any suspicious occurrences.

You are at this point 23 pages into Back from the Grave (1940) by Walter S. Masterman, before there’s a murder in an apparently locked and inaccessible room, and before the denizens of Bloomfield appear themselves to be marked for death, and any attempt to communicate the plot further would seem like the ill-focussed thoughts of one of the lunatics at the heart of this unusual tale. The truth is, after seven books, I’m built up immunity to the wildly swerving narratives that betoken Masterman’s novels, and I’m frequently having a delightful time waiting to see how he’ll tame sometimes out-of-control plots and bring everything back to some apparently planned conclusion. Here, as elsewhere, the tone, focus, intent, and expected structure and story beats are all over the place, and yet it really does make a kind of horrible sense in its own way once all’s said and done…even if, slightly disappointingly, it requires a last-chapter coincidence so great that even I winced to tie it all together. I don’t know if I’d recommend Masterman to anyone at this stage, but I am starting to get a sense of how Stockholm Syndrome feels.

Ostensibly, we follow Sinclair’s investigations as he — with no authority, which he gleefully reminds us every fourth page — muscles his way into Bloomfield on account of that locked room murder and tried to pluck out the heart of the mystery in which the household is shrouded. And there’s a lot of fun to be had in the first two-thirds of this, with the denizens of the house telling wildly contrasting stories about their origins, the delightfully pompous alienist Dr. Stammers beginning to worry that Bloomfield might be making him suffer from delusions himself, and Sinclair playing things remarkably close to his chest even as the hand of murder reaches out and strikes home again and again and again. Then, with a third of the book to go, Sinclair declares that “I think we are nearing the end” and things…take a weird turn.

Now, by this point, a weird turn in a Walter S. Masterman novel is par for the course; I’d almost be uncomfortable if he didn’t screech wildly across six lanes of traffic at some point, but the story he then goes on to tell is, even for him, something of a stretch. For a start, it becomes apparent that it’s necessary for everyone to tell everyone else exactly what is on their mind for the plot to continue to happen, and the openness with which some things are discussed feels, even in this looniverse, far too removed from the reality we’re expected to believe this inhabits. Masterman still writes snatches of wonderful prose…

Little did they realise it, they were drifting into a position of such complexity and difficulty that escape at last became impossible. Events drove them on with merciless certitude, each forcing them forward to a course of action from which most of them would have shrunk if it had been put as a definite proposal.

…and there are some delightful games being played as these events unfold, but I didn’t believe a second of it, where the first section of the book actually seemed quite — for want of a better word — likely.

The usual Masterman flaws are still in evidence — ye gods, the man cannot explain physical spaces in a way that makes any sense at all — but these are almost part of his charm for me now, and the bigger problem is the shapes he pushes everything into in order to get to the point he has in mind. That final chapter coincidence really doesn’t help matters — I mean, c’mon, Walt — and yet I can’t disregard this entirely because you can see what he’s aiming for even if it isn’t the kind of game I’d hunt myself. I maintain two things about Masterman, and expect to maintain them more avidly the more I read: 1) all his novels should have been published 60 years earlier than they were, and 2) the man would have been huge in France if he was ever translated…and Back from the Grave plays into these expectations note perfectly. There’s something of the Old Victorian in his schemes, something of the Gallic disregard for laying the foundations of exciting developments in his plotting, and something of the complete amateur in what read like the first-draft attempts to tame a story gotten too far away from its author…and yet, lord help me, I love it all.

You, dear reader, should retain your sanity and, if piqued, try his first two novels The Wrong Letter (1926) and The Curse of the Reckaviles (1927) before daring to venture any further into the untamed wastelands of Masterman’s psyche. I’m too far gone, however, and so shall continue deeper and report back on my progress whenever the urge takes me. Remember me kindly, and watch your step if you opt to follow.


Walter S. Masterman on The Invisible Event

2 thoughts on “#1019: Back from the Grave (1940) by Walter S. Masterman

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